Arbella Game 3 Preview: Hawks at Celtics

Arbella Playoffs

BOSTON – The NBA Playoffs return to Boston tonight when the Celtics (1-1) host the Atlanta Hawks (1-1) in Game 3 of their first-round series at 7:30 p.m. in TD Garden.

All of the talk leading up to the final day of the regular season revolved around the fact that Atlanta was on its way to securing home court, despite the fact that Boston held onto the higher seed. That talk was all for naught, because Boston has now gained home court advantage thanks to a stunning Game 2 victory in Atlanta.

The Celtics marched into Philips Arena Tuesday night without Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen and still pulled off an 87-80 victory. The main reason why was Paul Pierce, who put together one of the greatest playoff performances of his career.

Pierce led the game in both scoring, with 26 points, and rebounding, with 14 boards. He was unstoppable, and he knew he needed to be in order for his team to steal a win.

“With Rondo being out I knew had to step up my scoring tonight,” Pierce said after the game.

While Pierce’s offense gained the headlines, Boston’s defense was quietly dominant. It limited the Hawks to just 34.9 percent shooting from the field and 27.3 percent shooting from beyond the 3-point arc. The defense was particularly staunch in the fourth quarter, when Atlanta scored just 14 points.

“In the fourth quarter, they just kept pushing us out further and further off of our sweet spots,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said, “and we couldn’t initiate our offense the way we wanted to.”

Boston will look to do the same tonight, potentially with the services of both Rondo and Allen.

Rondo’s one-game suspension has been completed and Allen fully participated in Thursday’s practice session. Allen participated in this morning's shootaround and is listed as a game-time decision.

Although Allen made it through the entire practice Thursday afternoon, what really matters is how the ankle responds throughout today as Game 3 approaches. If the ankle swells up and results in pain, it’s highly unlikely that the sharpshooter will return to the lineup.

Atlanta has worries in the injury department as well. Josh Smith, the team’s best player in the series with averages of 19.0 PPG and 15.0 RPG, is listed as day-to-day with a left knee sprain. The 6-foot-9 forward went down with 4:20 remaining in Game 2, and as he walked to the locker room so did Atlanta’s hopes of pulling ahead 2-0 in the series.

The availability of two key players is still up in the air, but what we do know is that the Celtics will finally have the opportunity to play in their home arena for the first time since April 26. Boston’s faithful will surely provide a boost to the Celtics as they attempt to take a 2-1 series lead.

What Would Ray Provide?

Boston’s offense has struggled through the first two games of this series. One of the main reasons why is because Allen hasn’t been out on the floor. Without Allen, Boston doesn’t have a true shooting threat to which Atlanta must pay attention. As Rivers noted on Thursday, that fact has resulted in Atlanta’s defense packing the lane.

Ray Allen

Ray Allen might be ready to dig his feet - and ankles - in tonight for Game 3.
Kevin C. Cox/NBAE/Getty

“Clearly, without Ray, they’re using both guards to just sit in the paint, and we have to do a better job of creating space,” Rivers said. “It’s tough when you have two guards that they’re just not guarding, and that makes it difficult on Kevin (Garnett).”

If Allen steps onto the floor, that issue will immediately disappear. As Rivers has noted time and time again, if Allen is on the floor, someone from the other team has to stand next to him. It’s that simple. If Allen joins his teammates tonight, the C’s are likely to have much better spacing.

Smith’s Absence Would Loom Large

Let’s not sugarcoat this: Atlanta is in big trouble if Smith cannot play tonight. The Hawks’ offense changes dramatically on the floor without him, as we saw in the final four-plus minutes of Game 2.

Atlanta mustered up only eight points in the final 4:20 of that game while Smith was in the locker room. Two of those points game off of a gimme layup in the final minute of the game. With Smith out of the lineup, the Hawks resorted to one-on-one play and recorded only one assist in those final minutes.

There are three players on Atlanta’s team who can initiate their own offense: Smith, Joe Johnson and Jeff Teague. Smith is the key, because he puts pressure on Boston’s bigs. If he’s not on the floor, the Celtics will be able to load up on Atlanta’s other two scorers, and that could lead to an anemic offensive performance by the Hawks tonight.

Pierce and KG’s Minutes

Games 1 and 2 were both nail-biters that led to Pierce and Garnett logging substantial minutes for the Celtics. Pierce put in more than 44 minutes Tuesday night and did not get a rest in the second half. Meanwhile, Garnett has logged 40 minutes in each of the first two games.

With no back-to-backs in the playoffs, there is always time to rest up for the next game. However, there is no doubt that Rivers would prefer to limit both of those players to less than 40 minutes a night.

The only way to do that is to play with a lead and have the remainder of the rotation deliver solid production. Boston hasn’t had the luxury of either of those very often during this series, but it will be looking to change that tonight.